Atlanta, GA,
18:00 PM

Returning to School

Former patient struggles with a brain injury, but pushes hard to finish college.

At Victoria Middleton’s first group session during her inpatient brain injury rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, she was surprised to learn that she wasn’t 17 years old after all. She was 20.

“That’s when I learned why I was there,” she says.

Victoria, now 24, of White, Ga., was injured in July 2009 when a horse she was bathing reared and yanked a hitching post from the ground. The post struck her in the head, and when she fell, her head struck the concrete floor.

She spent three days in a coma and 10 days in intensive care before transferring to Shepherd Center, where she completed inpatient rehabilitation and two months of outpatient therapy at Shepherd Pathways, the hospital’s post-acute rehabilitation program.

Throughout her therapy, Victoria’s intention was to return to the University of South Carolina, but in her first year of rehabilitation, she attended a college close to her home so she could continue her therapy.

At first, she had a hard time adjusting. She says, “I thought, ‘I can do whatever I want.’”

But she had lost control of her left side and had difficulty walking. She also found she could only run for 15 seconds on a treadmill. But her therapists at Shepherd kept pushing her, and now, she’s grateful for it, she says.

By the time she returned to the University of South Carolina in 2011 and rejoined the equestrian team, her fitness level was much better and so was her ability to adjust to the changes in her life. Although an indifferent student, Victoria thrived upon the support of tutors and academic specialists and the encouragement of her teammates.

“They all wanted me to do well,” Victoria says, “so I wanted to do well for them.”

Victoria was fortunate to be enrolled in a university that supported her transition back to school. Colleges and universities that receive federal funds are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to accommodate people with disabilities. Michell Temple, interim director of the Office of Disability Services at Georgia State University in Atlanta, says that usually means giving students extended time on tests, allowing them to use note-taking services and books in alternative formats.

“We try to create an environment that is acceptable and inclusive,” Temple says. “We want all students, regardless of background, race, ethnicity or disability to complete college. We want our students judged on their abilities, not their inabilities.”

The key, Temple says, is that the students themselves must be willing to acknowledge their disability and tell the university what they need. Professors are generally receptive to such requests, but sometimes need help understanding.

“Because brain injuries are invisible, there’s usually a learning curve for them,” Temple says. “It’s not that professors resist it. They may not understand. Very rarely does a professor refuse to provide approved accommodations.”

Now graduated with a degree in marketing, Victoria says she has a new perspective on life. “I don’t sweat the trivial things so much,” she says. “I wanted to figure out who I was, and I’m very happy with who I am today.”

Victoria even used her injury as an asset after graduation, telling prospective employers: “I can work hard and here’s proof: I’ve been to hell and back.”

Written by John Christensen
Photography by Gary Meek

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.